Whether you were forced to read the book in high school, binge-watched the smash-hit Hulu series or, at the very least, recognize a woman in a red robe and funny-looking bonnet, Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” is eerily similar to modern society. While it has just been announced that a fourth season of the hit show is underway, we should not renew the socialized practice of “othering” for a permanent showing in our non-fiction policies.
In our world, there exists a fear of “others” that shapes politics and shared sentiments among citizens — something that extends beyond American borders and the pages of futuristic novels. It is as if our world leaders are trying to de-emulsify the melting pot of diversity that they once forcibly mixed as a solution to new problems.
When societies undergo big changes, like immigration influxes, surges in infertility or pandemics, it generates a response for people to develop a set of qualifications that help classify those who belong and those who are the “other.” Instead of seeing a change in demographics as a positive, it instead forces a negative urge to divide the favored and unfavored into groups, all while trying to avoid personal conflict and promote intra-group homogeneity.
The dystopian society depicted in “The Handmaid’s Tale,” the Republic of Gilead, is an undemocratic regime that views facts as fluid and truth as exclusive. It is based on the premise that this totalitarian patriarchal theocracy overthrew democracy in the interest of ridding the United States of environmental disasters, disease, ongoing wars and infertility. As a result, women are diminished to the status of an object devoid of feelings or capabilities of basic human functioning. Fertile women are believed to be of such high value and importance to the nation on the brink of extinction, yet their humanity is denied and their life purpose minimized. This is symbolized by their distinct clothing and absence of individuality down to their names. This dystopia is an example of extreme conservatism in tandem with patriarchy attempting to point the finger at the “other” as the threat without looking at the three fingers pointing back in their direction.
It is easy for viewers to gawk at the sexist and violent horrors in “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It is more palatable knowing that you can shut off, fast forward or pause the screen of a seemingly imaginary future. Yet, in many ways, our country is simply in a preliminary stage before reaching this dystopia, and it is something we cannot pause or rewind.
The similar rhetoric of our fictional and actual politicians and how easily it is promulgated can be responsible for eliciting anxiety around the “other,” making way for exclusion and even dehumanizing sentiments to be repackaged in a promise for a heightened economy and stabilized infrastructure. In modern contexts, instead of creating a bridge toward the “other,” we deny them the common humanity we both share and build a wall in front of our nation’s golden door, laying every brick in hopes of growing our personal satisfaction at another’s expense.
We can draw parallels in Britain, as Brexit was mobilized and voted on due to “unequivocal demonstration of the anti-establishment sentiments, xenophobia, populism and Euroscepticism” that has infiltrated European immigration policy. This action is an example of blurred boundaries between the European Union and non-EU, as well as the economic and humanitarian responsibilities that the campaign abandoned on the basis of maintaining nationality and autonomy. Following the leave, hate crimes spiked 15-25%, suggesting that long-held private anti-immigrant views were simply made public.
We can draw parallels in America, for as soon as former President Donald Trump took office in 2017, a wall was pledged to redefine “asylum” with “crisis” and make immigration a more difficult process for those trying to enter both legally and illegally. The “zero tolerance” policy is responsible for more than 2,500 children being separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border, a number that is thought to be much higher and a reality that we are still not paying enough attention to. The physical symbol of the wall and detention cages were erected to manipulate the demographics of the U.S. with increased anxiety among a nation of citizens who themselves descended from immigrants, yet have now turned a blind eye to our borders, shores and the Statue of Liberty.
Echoing the current state of our border, the final episode in season two of “The Handmaid’s Tale” culminates in the protagonist, June, briefly reuniting with her daughter Hannah, giving parting words as her daughter is ripped away from her. Yahlin Chang, a writer of the show, underwent a rigorous research process and talked with the United Nations to make the scene close to modern reality. In an interview, she stated that one UN expert told her, “Here’s what happens when parents have a few last words to say to their kids before the kid is ripped away, and [the parents are] taken away by the wall and shot or detained or arrested,” which prompted a discussion about the heart-wrenching moments of children being separated from their parents. This reveals that attempts at reform for the common good were in fact disguised as tyranny, something we are selectively deaf toward when watching the news, yet feel gut-wrenched when binge-watching Hulu.
Right now, we are living through one of the greatest global crises. The COVID-19 pandemic has upended every system and has completely redirected our politics and those who run it, not to mention stealing now over 500,000 lives in the U.S. This time of crisis is unfortunately correlated with a rise in conspiratorial and racist groups, presenting reinvigorated challenges and the continued presence of the “other.”
Despite the high risk of COVID-19 transmission in detention centers, prisons and crowded jails, tens of thousands of people remain in ICE detention facilities. Many immigration court hearings have been suspended and court functions are limited.
Whether or not we are soon to enter a dystopia is a question of whether or not we are under good governance, protected in a non-coercive manner in the event of a human or naturally made horror in reality. However, it is important to note that examples like Brexit or Trump’s impact on immigration are not solely responsible for making dystopian novels relevant again, not even taking into account the impact of the pandemic. Staying in tune with the lessons of history, we cannot turn a blind eye to inequities backed by what we know is wrong.
The solution is not mass uniformity, taking away individuality and replacing it with a promise of world peace. Instead, we are to replace divisive rhetoric and policies with the language and embrace of diversity and inclusion — it is a significant part of our nation’s core values.
Julia Maloney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown challenges at all of us — including The Michigan Daily — but that hasn’t stopped our staff. We’re committed to reporting on the issues that matter most to the community where we live, learn and work. Your donations keep our journalism free and independent. You can support our work here.
For a weekly roundup of the best stories from The Michigan Daily, sign up for our newsletter here.